Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. -- Socrates
It was a steamy Saturday summer afternoon in 2003 as we drove home from Rip Van Winkle Lanes where I had treated the kids and their friends to bowling and pizza. As I turned north off the Post Road, my daughter shouted to the car, "We're passing the cemetery; everyone's gotta hold their breath."
I had a rare epiphany that it would probably not be a good idea to play this game as my lung capacity had diminished in middle-age and I would have a hard time explaining to my automobile policy insurer how I drove into the living room of a house. On this particular afternoon, I breathed through my nose and inched ever so slightly over the speed limit to allow the children to avoid a haunting. Every adolescent exhaled at the exact time as we reached Norwalk Community College. One breathless little girl confidently informed the car, "Guys, always remember if you can make it to NCC, you have made it."
I would pass our local community college 100 times over the next nine years -- never understanding or appreciating that it truly was a place where oxygen was flowing back into the lives of individuals who had been holding their breath -- delaying dreams under the burden of poverty or circumstance. In the last 24 months, I have watched NCC transform through its capital campaign and expansion, reaching higher nourished by the care of a community, selfless faculty and the NCC Foundation -- a nonprofit foundation seeking to ensure that wherever there is a will to learn that we will always find a way.
Two weeks ago, the Norwalk Community College respiratory nursing program graduated 34 students. Their average age was 32. They were an incredibly diverse group, hailing from 15 countries and speaking 11 languages. They had overcome incredible odds, difficult curriculum and their own doubts. They beamed and exhaled -- understanding that they had achieved another milestone in their climb to greater opportunity and an improved standard of living. The graduates pulsed with a life force guided by and an urgency to give back to a community that had offered them a hand as they lifted themselves above their own situations. They were ready to help fill the void that will widen in the next 20 years as a percentage of an aging Boomer population succumbs to respiratory conditions common to the elderly -- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia.
My friend, Mike Hobbs, and Jane H. Kiefer, executive director of the NCC's foundation, had arranged for me to meet a cross-section of current nursing students and recent graduate nurses. There was Tashia, a single mom and fourth-year student who returned for her degree at age 34; Maria, a nursing graduate and veterinary oncologist researcher; Nick, a new father and former IT employee who felt a deeper calling to serve in health care; Elizabeth, a nursing graduate whose calling was fueled by the energy of her faculty; Eliana, a respiratory care graduate who was racing to get her diploma before delivering her own baby; Victoria, a respiratory care student who radiated with energy and a desire to make a difference; Grace, a determined and inspired mother of five who overcame barriers that would have defeated anyone with less conviction about her own potential; and Dorcas, a mother of three, who had to defeat language limitations, and the strong gravitational pull of obligations prevented her from rising above her circumstances. Her refusal to accept life's circumstances allowed her to take a wage of $6.10 at Dunkin Donuts in 2000 and stretch it far enough to ford a river of doubt -- fulfilling her dream to be a nurse and serve others.
In many instances, the NCC Foundation and NCC faculty combined to provide support for these students helping them through challenging course material, life events and circumstances that would have caused others to let go of their dreams. The heroes in this story are real people -- the students and those teachers who would not let them quit. It is a fairly tale ending written by countless Fairfield County families whose contributions to the foundation helped underwrite the dreams of these students in a time when budget deficits threaten to condemn more to lives that fail to reach find their avocations.
As we sat in the soft breezes of a perfect spring day, I was moved by their quiet determination and their personal pride. I sat next to Tashia, a single mother who recognized that she held the key to her own future. An honors student from Westport, Tashia was the first in her family to attend a four-year college but after three years of school, she ended up pregnant by a high school sweetheart and was unable to continue school as a single mother. She needed to go to work and recognized that she had to subordinate all her dreams to provide for her child. As Tashia focused a new career as mother and wage earner, she became critically ill -- ending up in and out of the health-care system. It was a chance encounter with a nurse that she changed the course of her life.
"At one hospital, a nurse took an interest in me and told me I should go to become a nurse myself. She just looked at me and told me, `I can see you doing this, it may be in your soul.'... She asked me questions, got to know me and I began to trust her. Knowing how much she impacted my life, I wanted to do more with mine."
The road to a new career in nursing as a working single mother seemed impossible. But she would not be deterred. A will to fulfill her purpose was burning and the naysayers, who told her she had one too many obligations to change lanes to a new life, only reinforced her determination.
"I was told it was impossible," Tashia said. "However, I didn't listen (to the critics) because I had no choice. I was determined to finish nursing school and work full time while being a single mom to a preteen. Doing it any other way wasn't an option. I worked extremely hard so (my employer) would not let me go. Luckily, I have an amazing boss that has done everything she can to keep me on as full-time. I remember it was about this time that I discovered the movie `The Secret.' It was where I was inspired to maintain positivity in my life. When I spoke about school, I never said, `If I pass,' I always said, `When I pass.' "
She took one class each semester while working full time. She had to delay her own gratification. Life was about making sacrifices and earning the chance to take another class. The ambition to be a nurse could only be accomplished one step at a time and there was no way of finessing the daunting difficulty of her challenge.
"I began to take one class at a time, beginning with humanities to chemistry to anatomy and physiology I and II while working full time as a supply chain manager at a growing local company. Work was just as stressful as schoolwork but I somehow managed to finish up my prerequisites. I nearly (ended up) homeless. Out of the graces of God, I found a home. I had to complete this program. There were tears, fears, life changes and incredible setbacks, but with the help of my classmates and the help of the school resources -- supportive nursing staff, the wonderful women from the FE$P (NCC Foundation) program etc. -- I was able to succeed.
"This year I was nominated by a nursing chair for an award, Women of Promise and Distinction. It was a proud moment and it made me understand that it had all been worth it. I was incredibly honored and surprised! My motivation is my daughter. NCC has given me many things but I believe the biggest (life lesson) has been (to never give up) hope. I now have a future."
Tashia is just one of thousands of continuing education students attending NCC each year. The students I met did not claim to be extraordinary, but were proud of their accomplishments and the commitment they made to improve themselves. They understand that everyone does not succeed and that having a chance to participate is merely table stakes in the game of life. They don't feel anyone owes them anything but they understand the obligation they have to make something of themselves to repay the acts of unconditional support that were provided at critical times of their journey.
For anyone who cynically still wonders whether the support they provide to community-based organizations really makes a difference in people's lives, they need look no further than the intersection of Richards Avenue and West Cedar Road. It is the nexus of will and willingness. It is where an entire community can exhale knowing it has made it past the graveyard of dreams.
I have already come up with a new sign for NCC: "Norwalk Community College -- It's OK, You Can Breathe Now."